Balanced (Literacy) Approach to Word Reading / A Range of ”Other Reading Strategies alongside [Analytic] Phonics” / England’s NLS Searchlights (Stannard / Huxford / Collins) Contextualised/Embedded Word Reading (Wyse & Goswami)
– Multi-Cue Word-Guessing / The Three-Cueing System / ‘Psycholinguistic’, ‘Informed’, ‘Intelligent’, ‘Smart’ or ‘Careful’ Word Guessing or Predicting (Henrietta Dombey / Frank Smith / Colin Harrison / Andrew Davis / Marian Whitehead) / ”Multiple Sources of Information (MSV)” (Lucy Calkins) / ”Active Problem Solving in Reading” (Reading Recovery) / ”Domain-contingent Prompts” (The Reading Teacher Journal)
– Analytic Phonics: ”Larger spelling generalizations (like rimes: ab, ad, ag, ack, am, an) and word analogies.” (Prof Shanahan) / Onset-Rime, Rhyming Analogy and Rhythm-based Approach (Usha Goswami / Jonathan Glazzard / Margaret M Clark / APPG for Dyslexia and Specific Learning Difficulties)
”(S)o-called ‘balanced literacy’, the love-child of whole language and a 1980s zeitgeist of child-led, discovery-based learning.” (Prof. Pamela Snow. Foreword to ‘Systematic Synthetic Phonics: Case studies from Sounds-Write Practitioners’)
The balanced literacy approach follows what many early years academics and teachers believe is a biologically-dictated developmental progression; that as they move up through the early primary years, children naturally develop the ability to perceive smaller and smaller units of sound (whole words -> syllable chunks -> rhymes -> phonemes) so the teaching of reading needs to follow this order too. Despite a lack of empirical evidence, many early years educationalists strongly suggest that deviating from this supposed developmental pathway, or anything but child-initiated, intrinsic learning, will damage children’s ‘naturally’ emerging phonemic awareness and spoil their love of reading. Explicitly teaching synthetic phonics (which goes directly to phonemes and graphemes) to children under the age of seven is, they warn darkly, likely to be, ”Too much, too soon” (Open EYE conference 16/02/08) and, ”a recipe for disaster” (Whitehead 2009 p76).
Balanced Literacy: An instructional bricolage that is neither fish nor fowl.
England’s Balanced Literacy Approach: the NLS Searchlights.
England’s version of Whole Language, commonly called the Real Books approach, was replaced by the National Literacy Strategy (NLS) in 1998. The NLS directors John Stannard and Laura Huxford were of the opinion that ”More extreme recommendations from phonics evangelists to teach children not to use other reading strategies alongside phonics, should be treated with great caution” (Stannard & Huxford 2007 p189). They ensured that Whole Language’s multi-cue word-guessing strategies continued on in the NLS as the Searchlights model.
”Let’s not forget that Balanced Literacy is Whole Language with some lipstick on.”
(Prof. Pamela Snow)
Sir Kevan Collins was deputy national director of the NLS, having been a Reading Recovery tutor earlier in his career (TES. 09/19). When giving evidence to the Education & Skills Committee in 2004, Collins was asked who designed the Searchlights model. He responded that the Searchlights model was ”something that three or four of [them] did…drawn from the work of [Reading Recovery author] Marie Clay” (Teaching Children to Read. Ev49. Q196). ”The human mind is not a bucket waiting to be filled with facts…The mind is better likened to a searchlight that is constantly expecting, guessing, predicting…” (Stannard & Huxford 2007 p25).
When the NLS ended in 2006, Laura Huxford went on to co-author the DfE’s synthetic phonics programme Letters and Sounds (in 2021 the DfE described L&S 2007 as “not fit for purpose” and it was withdrawn). Sir Kevan Collins went on to lead the Education Endowment Foundation until 2019.
In their Civitas paper Ready to Read, Anastasia de Waal and Nicholas Cowen wrote: ”(I)n order to accommodate the more established academic orthodoxy (i.e. child centred rather than anything resembling didactic or mechanistic teaching), a medley of reading strategies was included in Searchlights. This attempt to keep everyone happy, while also attempting to address reading standards, led to a rather chaotic model which would frequently prove ineffective.
”The NLS Searchlight was a political compromise to get whole language supporters on board when the original framework was drawn up. It seems so reasonable on the surface, a bit of [analytic] phonics, a bit of look and say, a bit of whole word guessing, who could argue with that? Well, if you go on doing what you’ve always done, you’ll go on getting what you’ve always got, in this case 25 to 30 per cent of the children in your school unable to read properly. The long tail of underachievement in England is recognised in international studies. It was there before the NLS. The NLS was supposed to get rid of it. It’s still there, complete with gender gap and underachieving boys spawning a whole new cottage industry for advisors and publishers. In synthetic phonics schools, there is no long tail of underachievement. There is no gender gap. Boys do not underachieve. Same kids — different teaching methodology.”
Balanced literacy advocate Prof Dombey was of the opinion that the NLS Searchlights model was the most effective way to teach English word reading because “Decoding must be seen to denote the identification of words typical of English texts, including irregular words such as ‘said’ and ‘island’. It should not be equated with synthetic phonics, which is inadequate as a decoding system for English. So it should be taken to involve ‘flexible unit size strategies’, and also morphology and semantics.”
”As analytic phonics as well as synthetic phonics can involve sounding and blending, how can these two methods be distinguished? According to the National Reading Panel (2000, 2-89), in analytic phonics children analyse letter sounds after the word has been identified, whereas in synthetic phonics the pronunciation of the word is discovered through sounding and blending. Another critical difference is that synthetic phonics teaches children to sound and blend right at the start of reading tuition, after the first few letter sounds have been taught. In analytic phonics children learn words at first largely by sight, having their attention drawn only to the initial letter sounds. Only after all of the letter sounds have been taught in this way is sounding and blending introduced. It can be seen therefore that the phonics approach advocated in the National Literacy Strategy is of the analytic type.”
(italics added. Johnston & Watson. Accelerating Reading and Spelling with Synthetic Phonics)
Why the searchlights just won’t seem to go out:
A Logographic / Whole Word / Sight Word Start:
The balanced literacy approach requires children to memorise a bank of high frequency words as logographs, as a first step. In fact, some early years academics and educators believe that young children are biologically primed to see individual words solely ”…through their crude visual features such as shape or size” (Uta Frith) even if they receive some phonics instruction: ”Initially, whatever we try to teach them, young children recognise words as unanalysed wholes, making no attempt to map the component letters into speech sounds. [Frith] terms this the logographic phase” (italics added. Prof. Dombey. Literacy Today 20). Research in Germany (Wimmer/Hummer) has shown that children do not go through a ‘logographic phase’ when they are taught how to decode words using phonemes and graphemes, from the beginning of reading instruction (RRF newsletter 45. p6/ D. McGuinness ERI p339-347)
”The belief in sight-words as a first step is found everywhere” but ”Teachers must not be brainwashed into believing that logographic reading is natural if in fact it is the result of teaching, as the evidence suggests to be the case.” (Jenny Chew)
Another common belief is that beginning readers need to memorise ‘100 or so’ high frequency words by sight alone because of the opaqueness of the English spelling system: ”In Scottish schools there is a preference for a mixed method which combines the teaching of a vocabulary of sight words with the teaching of the letters and decoding procedures. These methods are well adapted for deep orthographies in which commonly occurring words contain letter structures which are inconsistent with the principles of simple grapheme–phoneme correspondence.” (Seymour/Aro/Erskine).
”It should not include lists of high frequency words or any other words for children to learn as whole shapes ‘by sight’’ (2021. DfE (England) phonics programmes essential core criteria)
Asking children to memorise scores of words (e.g. Dolch / Fry / NLS / L&S 2007 / National Curriculum word lists) visually, without phonics decoding, is a harmful practice and why no high-quality phonics programme expects children to learn words as logographs. Firstly, because words, when viewed as whole units, form abstract visual patterns which humans find difficult to memorise in large numbers; examination of different writing systems reveals that the memory limit for whole words is around 2,000-2,500, since no true writing system, past or present, has expected users to memorise more than this number of abstract symbols. When children reach their visual memory limits they will struggle to read texts containing more unusual words if they haven’t, in the meantime, been taught or deduced the alphabet code for themselves. Secondly, for most children, memorising words visually seems easy at first and, if the practice is encouraged, it will become their main strategy (along with word guessing), subverting their phonemic awareness abilities and setting up a habit or reflex in the brain which can be hard to shift.
”If children receive contradictory or conflicting instruction, most children prefer to adopt a ‘sight word’ (whole word) strategy. This seems ‘natural’, it is easy to do initially, and has some immediate success, that is until visual memory starts to overload…becoming a whole-word (sight-word) reader is not due to low verbal skills1, but is a high risk factor in the general population, and something that teachers should curtail at all costs.” (bold in original. D. McGuinness. RRF 51 p19)
Teach 100 first spellings, not 100 first words.
How to respond to the ”But some words can’t be sounded-out” objection to phonics
The Multi-Cue Word-Guessing Strategies:
‘The three-cueing system: Trojan horse?’
Multi-cueing: teaching the habits of poor readers.
Some phonics sceptics openly recommend using guessing as a word-reading strategy:
– ”Every child also needs a third key, careful guessing from context.” (Prof H. Dombey)
– ”Reading without guessing is not reading at all.” (F. Smith. 1973 Psycholinguistics and Reading).
It’s notable that many balanced literacy enthusiasts prefer to use a euphemism, ‘predicting’: ”(I)s it ‘Mam’ or ‘Mummy’, a ‘horse’ or a ‘house’? This highly skilled predicting can be more highly tuned and corrected in retrospect if the reader is given the opportunity to go back and self-correct” (italics added. Whitehead. 2010. p160)
”Teaching students to use meaning to figure out what a word is, is guessing. Telling them to look at the picture to figure out a word is guessing.”
(Prof. Timothy Shanahan)
”Children are prone to guessing because it’s quicker and easier than the hard work of decoding…Children need no encouragement to guess. If they are encouraged, they absolutely will, but they will do so at the expense of fostering the reading habits of genuinely skilled readers, and they may never fully master or apply the alphabetic code.”
”It is ethically unacceptable to pursue teaching methods that may cause anxiety and stress”, says phonics sceptic Marian Whitehead (Whitehead. 2010 p.141). Here is an actual example of the word guessing rigmarole that a child, taught through the balanced literacy approach, is expected to follow on encountering any word they don’t immediately recognise: ”If a child met the word ‘nightingale’ he would use a combination of initial sound (n), segmentation (night-ing-(g)ale), letter clusters (ight, ing), sight vocabulary (gale) and context (it’s a bird)’’ (Fisher. Practical answers to teachers’ questions about reading. UKLA p8). A better method of inducing anxiety and stress in a beginning reader is difficult to imagine.
Another phonics sceptic, Yvonne Siu-Runyan, provided the following example of how she believes a child ‘reads’ an unknown word: “A child encounters the word ‘butterflies’ in a story,” said Siu-Runyan. “The first time he reads it as ‘b-flies.’ Maybe the next time he reads it as ‘butt-flies’ and the next time as ‘betterflies.’ For me to assume he’s not going to get it would be a mistake, because finally he’ll say to himself, ‘Does this make sense?’ He’ll look at the pictures of butterflies [in the book] and say to himself, ‘Oh, this is a story about butterflies!’ And he’ll get it right after that. It’s a lot more complicated a process than handing a child a list of words.” (Charlotte Allen)
Some teachers believe that beginning readers should be encouraged to try out a range of word reading strategies because ”all children are different” (have different learning styles), often phrased as ”one size doesn’t fit all”, as this will enable them to find their own ”preferred approach” to read words. Prof. Pamela Snow responded: ”This is one of those simplistic truisms that got into the education water and is now difficult to remove. If there’s 7 billion people on this planet, there are not 7 billion different learning needs. Teaching would be impossible if that was the case”
In his 2006 review, Sir Jim Rose also responded to this very widely held view saying, ”(A)ll beginning readers have to come to terms with the same alphabetic principles if they are to learn to read and write… Moreover, leading edge practice (in synthetic phonics) bears no resemblance to a ‘one size fits all’ model of teaching and learning, nor does it promote boringly dull, rote learning of phonics.” (Rose review 2006 para.34)
”Rescind the idea that all children are different. The idea that each of us has a distinct learning style is a myth. Brain imaging shows that we all rely on very similar brain circuits and learning rules.”
(Prof. Dehaene. How We Learn)
”Excluding students identified as “visual/kinesthetic” learners from effective phonics instruction is a bad instructional practice—bad because it is not only not research based, it is actually contradicted by research” (Stanovich p30)
Guessing: why it is not an effective reading strategy.
Analytic Phonics: the Rime and Analogy Word Reading Strategy
”(A)nalytic approaches focus attention on larger spelling generalizations (like rimes: ab, ad, ag, ack, am, an) and word analogies.” (Prof Shanahan)
Advocates of the balanced approach to word reading often protest that they aren’t anti-phonics, with most adding that they ”have always used phonics to teach reading.” They are usually referring to analytic phonics, using onset and rime/rhyming analogy as a word reading strategy. See below:
– ”Glazzard (2017) argued that many younger children were not able to deal with the smallest unit of sound, the phoneme, but must begin with larger units and recommended onset and rimes maintaining that reading instruction was not a ‘one size fits all’ (2017:53) model.” (Timothy Mills p88)
– ”Children with reading difficulties benefit when a range of approaches to teaching reading are used alongside synthetic phonics. This includes other linguistic levels like onset-rime, syllable, and rhythm-based instructional approaches.” (APPG for Dyslexia and Specific Learning Difficulties. 2021)
The analytic phonics (onset-rime/rhyming analogy) strategy is taught using common words that the children have previously memorised as whole shapes by sight. First, the memorised word’s onset is separated out (beginning consonant letters are taught as one unit even if they represent individual sounds) and then the rest of the word is analysed to find its rhyming family (for example, the onset + ‘ing’ family – s/ing, br/ing, str/ing, th/ing…). After some practice in orally breaking previously memorised whole words into onset and rime units, it is assumed that children will then be able to use this strategy with previously unseen words: ”Recognising word families and patterns helps children develop inferential self-teaching strategies. If they can read ‘cake’, they can work out and read ‘lake’ without blending all the individual phonemes” (Lewis & S.Ellis p4)
”As it is widely assumed that children need to be aware of phonemes before they can benefit from a [synthetic] phonics approach, a ‘new’ phonics or ‘rhyming analogy’ approach has been recommended as an easier route than [synthetic] phonics for English beginning readers. This paper argues, however, that English beginners are just as capable of a phonemic approach as beginners in other languages, that phonemic awareness is not a precondition, that beliefs to the contrary are based on misunderstanding, and that systematically applying grapheme-phoneme correspondences throughout each word is an excellent basis for word-identification even in English.”
”Goswami persists in holding to her theory that “rhyme” is as important as phonemes in learning to master an alphabetic writing system. She even claims that rhyme is relevant to our spelling system: “spelling-sound consistencies occur at two levels, rhyme and phoneme.” The notion that the rhyme (word endings that sound alike) is relevant to learning an alphabetic writing system (which is entirely based on phonemes) has been largely discredited. When the National Reading Panel in the US published their landmark survey of reading research in 2000, results showed that rhyme-based teaching methods were singularly ineffective either alone or combined with something else.” (D. McGuinness)
”(T)eaching children about onset and rime as a route to discovering individual phonemes is similar logic to thinking that a person can be taught to read music by memorising chords on, say a guitar or piano. Although it may be relatively easy for a person to learn the names of some musical chords and how to play them, there is little possibility that this knowledge will lead to the ability to read musical notation, to the ability to play individual notes on these instruments in response to the corresponding written symbols.” (B. Macmillan p82).
Recent studies, ”have shown conclusively that children do not use rhyming endings to decode words; hardly ever decode by analogy to other words, and that ability to dissect words into onsets and rimes has no impact whatsoever on learning to read and spell.”
(D. McGuinness WCCR p148)
1997. How important are rhyme and analogy in beginning reading?
”The major finding of this study is that phonological awareness intervention that focused on rhyme awareness, syllable segmentation, & initial phoneme discrimination had little effect on the later literacy acquisition of children from low-SES backgrounds.”
Bonnie Macmillan: Rhyme and reading: A critical review of the research methodology
”There is debate over whether children’s early rhyme awareness has important implications for beginning reading instruction. The apparent finding that pre-readers are able to perform rhyme tasks much more readily than phoneme tasks has led some to propose that teaching children to read by drawing attention to rime units within words is ‘a route into phonemes’ (Goswami, 1999a, p. 233). Rhyme and analogy have been adopted as an integral part of the National Literacy Strategy (DfEE, 1998), a move which appears to have been influenced by three major research claims: 1) rhyme awareness is related to reading ability, 2) rhyme awareness affects reading achievement, and 3) rhyme awareness leads to the development of phoneme awareness. A critical examination of the experimental research evidence from a methodological viewpoint, however, shows that not one of the three claims is sufficiently supported. Instructional implications are discussed.”
Open access pdf: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/227715334_Rhyme_and_Reading_A_Critical_Review_of_the_Research_Methodology
All phonics instruction is not the same: Analytic phonics, ‘’developed out of the inherent flaws of whole word…’’
”The focus should be on phonemes, and not on ‘consonant clusters’ (/s/+/p/+/l/ not /spl/) or ‘onset and rime’ (/c/+/a/+/t/ not c-at, m-at, b-at)”
(2021. DfE (England) phonics programmes essential core criteria)